Thursday, September 1, 2011

Soba Heaven

Sonoko Sakai, soba
Since I love anyone obsessed with food, it's no surprise that I would love Sonoko Sakai. I recently had dinner at her home. Aside from being an accomplished movie producer, she's also a master of the soba noodle, which is a buckwheat noodle from Japan. When made properly, these noodles can be transcendental.
My own experience with soba noodles was at Honmura An, a soba-noodle restaurant in New York, which prepared fresh soba daily. It was one of my favorite restaurants in N.Y., and I was devastated when they closed.
As I sat down with Sonoko, I shared my own obsession with making the perfect loaf of pain levain, a bread made with sourdough. Immediately, Sonoko and I had a meeting of the minds. She explained her passion for soba, how she approaches it as a kind of daily meditation and that if she misses a morning of making the noodles she’ll feel unbalanced. I knew I was in the right place—if you’re going to learn about how to make soba, then you want your teacher to have that kind of passion.
The thing is, real artisanal soba noodles are made with only buckwheat flour and water, and because buckwheat has no gluten, the measurements must be right or they will turn out chewy or will fall apart in the water. Most commercial soba you buy is mixed with wheat flour.
To watch a soba master make soba noodles from scratch is profound. In fact, Sonoko told me that the best soba masters grow their own buckwheat to their specifications. She even travels to Japan regularly to study with her teacher Akila Inouye and, in fact, brought him to L.A. to teach a few classes.
Sonoko Sakai, soba As I watched Sonoko, she sifted the imported buckwheat flour from Japan. After adding water, she began kneading the dough in a gigantic metal bowl. She then turned the dough into a ball with a little top, which she referred to as a nipple (her teacher calls it a Hershey's Kiss). Then, as she rolled the dough with four-foot pins, she used numbered discs to measure its height.
Sonoko Sakai, soba Sonoko kept apologizing for not being perfect yet, but her work looked flawless to me. Somehow, magically, the dough went from round to rectangular, then folded up into a tight little package. She then brought out a gigantic knife and started slicing the soba with consummate precision. She tells me that a true master actually slices without ever looking at the knife while slicing. Then she makes piles of perfectly sliced soba noodles ready to be boiled.
Sonoko Sakai, soba Finally, it is time to eat. She boils the soba noodles and then runs them under cold water—we’re eating them cold, which is my favorite way. We have fresh nori to crumble over the noodles and a broth with freshly grated daikon to dip the noodles in. With my first bite, I am transported into pure bliss—the taste and texture are just perfection.
I know I will always treasure this experience and am most definitely signing up for the next class when her teacher returns to L.A.
Sonoko Sakai, soba


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